Alternative Web Hosting and Design

I’ve been working on a website for a friend recently and things have progressed far enough that we are now looking around for web hosting. Naturally, I insisted we look for a web hosting service run by a workers’ collective with ties to the progressive community, preferably one that was green (or at least greenish hued). It turns out there are more such groups than I would have thought, and checking some of them out has been a very heartening experience, as connecting with like-minded people working towards a better world always is.

In the USA

Some of them are close to home. Located in the Mission district here in San Francisco, Radical Designs is “a full service web development group focused on the needs of non-profit and grass roots social change organizations.” Their clients include CorpWatch (yay!) and CodePink (“Women for Peace”) as well as a bunch of other progressive groups, with a particularly strong representation of environmental organizations. Most of their client sites have been developed using their “Activist Mobilization Platform,” and they tend to have a similar look and feel – but they all look great and have an excellent range of features and tools that attests to the power of the platform they’ve developed. Unfortunately, Radical Designs is purely a design firm and doesn’t offer the hosting services we need.

Over on the other coast, in New York City, Eggplant Active Media is “a worker run collective, providing new media and communication services to businesses, communities, organizations and individuals. Eggplant Active Media is dedicated to promoting an ecological and egalitarian society with political, economic, social, and civil freedoms for all people and communities.” And they have a platform they develop and use as well: the “Ministry of Information Content Management System” which is, we are told, “built on RiotCore, the next-generation web application framework designed to power protest.net.”

(Just reading stuff like that makes my day! No dour old left terminology here – “Ministry of Information” and “RiotCore” and “Activist Mobilization Platform” (ie,  AMP). There’s wit and humor here as well as serious intent and strong commitments.)

Unlike Radical Design, Eggplant Active Media does offer web hosting in addition to their design services, and so I might actually be able to use them for the site I’ve been developing.

Eggplant’s extensive client list includes two major alternative publishers, local heroes AK Press (yay!) and South End Press (“Read. Write. Revolt.”), as well as a number of Independent Media Center sites.

[Other sites in the Independent Media network rely on Oscailt, an open source website platform developed “in house”:

Oscailt is an independent media centre content management system developed by the Indymedia Ireland Tech Group, and written using PHP and MySql. The word “Oscailt” is an Irish word meaning “open” and is pronounced kind of like us-kilt or us-cult or us-culch depending upon your accent.

In addition to IndyMedia projects, Oscailt is used to manage the Ireland-based Workers Solidarity Movement website.]

Across the river from Eggplant Active Media, theCoup is a “quickly growing studio based in Brooklyn” that “provides creative strategy and design to connect you with funders, clients, partners, news media, and the masses. We are activists and teachers, experienced with design, technology, and fundraising development.” The projects they’ve worked on are a diverse and interesting mix, and some of the sites they’ve done are really beautiful.

Ronin Tech Collective, in Brattleboro, Vermont, is a worker-owned and operated “technology collective” that emphasizes “workplace democracy and promoting a democratic society while supporting progressive businesses, non-profits, and cooperatives by providing open-source website development and consulting.” Apparently a newly form spin-off from or successor to the “Brattleboro Tech Collective,” their client list is still growing, and they don’t do web hosting, just design and development. I was impressed by the importance they give to workplace democracy.

Elsewhere

Of course, progressive organizations offering web and internet services are not limited to the USA, but can be found all over the world.

Located in London, GreenNet is an “ethical ISP that has been connecting people and groups who work for peace, the environment, gender equality and human rights since 1986.” They have a full range of services, including email, web design and hosting, and internet access, both broadband and dialup.

GreenNet is a member of the umbrella group, APC – Association for Progressive Communications:

For those who have access to it, the internet has become an essential part of their daily information and communication needs. However millions of people still do not have affordable, reliable or sufficient connectivity. APC believes the internet is a global public good. Founded in 1990, APC is an international network and non-profit organisation that wants everyone to have access to a free and open internet to improve their lives and create a more just world.

We are a global network of civil society organisations whose mission is to empower and support organisations, social movements and individuals in and through the use of information and communication technologies to build strategic communities and initiatives for the purpose of making meaningful contributions to equitable human development, social justice, participatory political processes and environmental sustainability.

APC is a truly global organization, and their council is made up of activists and professionals from all over.  Following links on the APC website is an easy way to take a quick “round the world” tour of progressive activism on the internet.

As is so often the case when it comes to things alternative, Canada turns out to be a hotbed of activity. Toronto-based APC member Web Networks must be one of the oldest internet service oriented companies around, progressive or otherwise, having been in business since 1986.

Whether it is providing Canada’s Inuit with the facility to work online in their own language, creating an information hub for youth living in Toronto Community Housing, or building a website for the United Church of Canada, Web Network’s goal is to use our proven open source systems to meet our client’s goals in organizational, technical and business environments.

Also in Toronto is the tech collective, OAT (Organizing for Autonomous Telecomms):

We evolved out of TAO Communications and are affiliated with other activist tech projects like resist.ca and interactivist.net. . . . We believe in free access to information and technical tools, and are actively engaged in creating a democratic space for alternative and secure means of communications.

Through their tao.ca site, this tech collective provides mail, lists and web hosting “to individuals and groups working towards social justice.”

Montreal’s Koumbit.org offers an extensive range of services – including training and graphic design services, in addition to the usual web design and hosting. The training is part of Koumbit’s broader commitment to developing IT skills within the progressive community. As they explain, “Koumbit …promotes the use of free & open source software by community groups in Quebec, Canada and abroad, and creates a skills and resource pool for progressive-minded autonomous IT workers and design professionals.” The name comes from a Creole word roughly translated as “an association of people towards the realization of a common goal.”

Still in Canada, I have to mention anarres worker co-operative, a Toronto group that like this blog (see here) takes its name from Ursula Le Guin’s novel The Dispossessed. This co-operative specializes in “the development, support, and consulting of online communication tools for the non-profit social sector.” As with SF’s Radical Design, they don’t offer the services I need – basic web hosting – but are another example of the proliferation of collectives working on internet projects for other progressive groups.

Down in the antipodes, the enviro-geek collective “provides by-donation and/or free websites and other online services for not-for-profit environmental and social justice groups.” They also run their own website as “a place for social justice and environment activists/geeks to network, organise, share knowledge, and to help other groups in these movements use technologies such as the Internet and computers to spread their messages.” Surprisingly, this dual role of providing a community site/space, as well as a web design and hosting company, is not as common as I would have expected, though the OAT collective, of the groups already discussed, does something similar.

Green Web Hosting

A very useful comparison of an extensive range of “green” web hosting providers is available. A couple of companies on the list stand out for their commitments to broader progressive values, beyond just being green.

In addition to purchasing carbon offsets for all their energy use, rendering them at least nominally carbon neutral, Think Host offers “discounted web hosting to a number of non-profit community-based organizations and progressive companies,” and free hosting “for selected USA-based community groups focused on peace, environment or social justice.” [Disclosure: they offer an affiliate program, in which I have enrolled; as with other affiliate programs used here, any money thus generated will be donated to progressive causes.]

While Think Host goes some way towards a broader commitment to progressive social values in their support for non-profit and community groups, it still seems to be a regular for-profit company run along traditional lines – that is, with an owner or owners, and employees. By contrast, in addition to its green commitments GAIA Host Collective is, in their own words, “a socially and environmentally concerned, worker-owned collective providing reliable internet hosting services.” Interestingly, while they are nominally based in Massachusetts, they utilize server farms in Boston, Southern New Hampshire and San Francisco, and the worker-owners all work virtually, I suppose theoretically from around the globe. (Ronin Tech Collective, discussed above, uses GAIA to host their website.)

Class War on the Web?

Given my raising, in an earlier post, of the possibility of cyber-attacks on hate sites, it was with a certain amount of consternation that I read, while researching this piece, of a hacking attack on the progressive blog/web hosting service, SoapBlox. SoapBlox is up and running again, having gone through a security audit and moved to a new hosting provider. SoapBlox describes itself as a “fast, affordable, easy-to-use online community blog platform” with strong roots in online political activism.

Laudable and important as this is, in other respects SoapBlox doesn’t seem particularly progressive – that is, they seem to be a normal commercial operation, without even any overt green commitment, that simply has specialized in the niche market of online political activism. Nonetheless, they seem to offer good services. And it would be interesting to learn who was responsible for the hack attack on them.

Business as Usual

Ironically, most of the web design and hosting firms that feature the term “progressive” in their names are nothing of the kind, at least not in any political sense. For instance, Progressive Web Concepts is a bog-standard capitalist operation, and the design of their website – check out that rotating globe and the stock photo of the guy on his mobile – suggest they can’t even be considered progressive in a design or technical sense either. (And don’t get me started on the typos.)

Similarly, there doesn’t appear to be anything progressive about Progressive Internet Action. The company describes itself as “the Ben & Jerry’s of Internet services!” – and there may be a modicum of truth in the phrase, in that they were founded by a “multi-racial, multi-cultural group of partners” – potentially, though not necessarily progressive – but have since been bought out by someone who is clearly focused on the bottom line. And their site sucks.

Likewise, the “progressive” in the names of Progressive Network and Progressive Web Services (an Indian company) doesn’t refer to anything political or social. The former, Progressive Network is, however, very cheap, and I was amused by they way they inform us that they use “diesel backup generators” – a bit of unnecessary detail but sort of sweet.

Conclusions

Obviously, this is only a small sampling of progressive and alternative web and internet firms and groups. However, even this extremely limited selection does suggest something of the range that is out there and of the overall flavour of this movement of alternative tech services, and points to some tendencies and features that are worth considering.

First, there seems to be a gap between “green” hosting solutions and “progressive” firms. Most of the “green” companies operate otherwise along regular commercial lines, with GAIA Host Collective as the notable exception. On the flip side, most of  the radical design and hosting companies don’t make any overt commitment to green values. One exception here is Vermont’s Ronin Tech Collective, which uses GAIA to host the sites it develops.

NYC’s Eggplant Active Media has its servers at The Seattle Community Colocation Project which provides server colocation to non-profits, social justice organizations, free software projects, and the like on a sliding scale basis. But they do not seem to have any specific green policies or practices in place. Some of the groups discussed may in fact have commitments to green principles that they have simply not made a big deal about – after all, being green is pretty common these days, whereas, lamentably, a commitment to workplace democracy is still pretty rare. Nonetheless, in for example the Seattle Community Colocation Project’s discussion of its facilities one would expect any efforts to be more green in things like energy consumption to receive a mention.

But while this apparent gap between green and progressive seems somewhat curious, I wouldn’t come down on the progressive groups for their failure to be “green.” They all sound amazing and it would be ridiculous to insist on rigorous adherence to some sort of maximal left/alternative program or set of principles.

Secondly, and entirely predictably, the web collectives all rely on open-source software – Linux, Apache, MySQL, Drupal, etc. – for pretty much everything. Two of the content management systems developed by these groups, Eggplant’s Ministry of Information and IndyMedia Ireland’s Oscailt, have also been released as open-source software to facilitate web work by other progressive groups. Eggplant has a brief but useful discussion of its commitment to open-source software on their website [here].

Finally, and more importantly, most if not all of the clients for the various tech collectives and progressive web design firms are other progressive non-profits, activist organizations and similar groups.  This may be a matter or principle, or even preference, but it would be nice to see groups like Eggplant or Radical Design doing more work for regular companies. A related issue is the use by radical tech collectives of other alternative organizations – such as Eggplant’s use of the Seattle Community Colocation facility or Ronin’s use of GAIA for hosting. While the building up of a web of reliance and support among progressive groups and companies is an important and principled activity, moving out into the commercial sector, taking business from “business as usual” companies, is an important tactic I would like to see pursued more often. The income from commercial projects could be used to subsize work for alternative groups, a tactic that has been pursued and discussed by, for example, Italian anarcho-syndicalists, by doing things like opening a cafe and child care facility in one building and using income from the cafe to subsidize the child care. And as part of the larger struggle what we want to see is more and more of the economy and daily life (including our cafes as well as child care) shifting out of the hands of the existing social order (capitalism, etc.) and being taken over by radical workers collectives and the like.  As I suggested in “Tintin Joins the Struggle,” that looks like the path of revolution.

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